On Knowing When the Vibe Is Right

It’s a feeling that comes over you. Everybody’s on the same wavelength. Before click tracks, the music really breathed. Pro Tools is cool, but it’s not as true as analog.

On Starting Out in Kansas City

Coming up in the ’50s, Kansas City was a great music scene. All kinds of jazz—bebop, straight-ahead, and swing—also country, and naturally rock ’n’ roll. I started out as a singer with my brother in many of the local clubs. We had a band called the Kansas City Carpets, and we were on the same label as James Brown. At the time, my mother refused to let us go on the road, which was a good thing because we were too young. We could have gotten killed out there.

On the Chitlin’ Circuit

I played snare drum in drum and bugle corps, but I never played drumset until my brother said, “Man, you play the drums.” That group was called the Derbys, and this was the band that went out on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Our repertoire focused on ’60s soul: Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Booker T. and the MG’s…. We were playing in Miami when we hooked up with a booking agent who sent us on a tour of the South. He had us impersonating Otis Redding. Man, it was rough! Some places were still segregated. It was very dangerous, because sometimes the patrons would shoot up the club, so we had to run out of more than one of them!

On Going Pro

I was still based in Kansas City when some friends appeared on The Dean Martin Show. I thought they’d made the big time. I came out to Los Angeles in 1966, and it was tough for me at first because I couldn’t read or play stylistically what the status quo was looking for. I got a gig with Charles Wright, who in turn introduced me to Bill Withers, and that’s when it all started. I was coming out of the old Record Plant when I met a contractor named Ben Berenson, who recommended me for some sessions in the Motown studios. I played on the Miracles’ “Do It Baby,” which was my first hit.

On Paul McCartney, Beck, and Barbra Streisand

They all work differently. Beck is very adventurous. Streisand worked with a producer, so the music was prearranged. McCartney knew what he was going to do—it was me who had to figure out what I was going to play! He’s a super person. Very nice to work with, and very kind to me.

On Producers and Engineers

One of my favorite engineers is Barney Perkins [Freda Payne, El DeBarge, Anita Baker, Keith Jarrett]. He gets a great drum sound. Producers? Quincy Jones. “Q” is as smooth as silk, the way he puts musicians and music together. I did one memorable session with Phil Spector. He actually called me for a session, and when I was through he said, “It’s not right.” Now, I was pretty shell-shocked as it was, and I didn’t have a clue that he wanted me back the next day. So the next day the phone rings and it’s him, screaming, “Hey, why aren’t you here!” I answered, “You didn’t tell me to be there.” He started screaming obscenities, and then slammed the receiver down. I think it was the beginning of the end for him. I heard he was jumping up on the console going crazy.

On Working on Funny People With Adam Sandler

That was great. Adam tried to make me an actor and wanted to give me more parts. But when I was recording the soundtrack, our schedules weren’t in sync. I really enjoyed the whole film experience. Almost every time Adam would see me, he’d say, “Man, you look like my father!”


James Gadson plays DW drums and Istanbul Agop cymbals and uses Innovative Percussion sticks, Remo heads, and Lauten Audio mics.